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Why do so many Americans believe they have exclusive rights to “the dream”?

Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, went on to become one of the longest


serving and most successful Prime Ministers in Britain’s history; but she never
claimed to be living the British dream. When a lowly corporal named Napoleon
Buonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor, no one said he was living the French dream.
But almost every American – especially if he is an immigrant – who makes it big is
said to be living the American dream.

So what, exactly, is the American dream; and is it more myth than reality? Most
Americans I’ve come in contact with – those who proudly boast of living in ‘the
greatest country on earth’ – vehemently insist that it is a reality. Is it? Right
about now, the usual suspects must be sharpening their knives and getting ready to
admonish me for inflicting my ignorant, ‘foreigner’ opinions on God’s chosen
people. I usually love a good scrap, but this time I am going to play it safe and
stick to facts.

What could be more factual than the US Census and Bureau of Statistics? Yes, most
of it is pretty boring, but it does throw up some revealing insights. The US
Constitution may declare that all men are created equal, but very few Americans
end up that way. Statistics show that the richest one percent of Americans own 38
percent of the nation’s wealth. That leaves the remaining 99 percent with less
than two-thirds of the pie. And the gap is growing wider. According to Fortune
magazine, in 1970, the average annual salary of the top one hundred CEOs was 39
times the pay of an ordinary worker. By 1999, it had risen to 1000 times the pay
of ordinary workers. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, between 1979
and 1997, the post-tax income of the top one percent of Americans rose by 157
percent, while the income of those in the middle-income range rose by only 5
percent. The poorest 20 percent of the population actually saw their real incomes
decline.

The United States is generally acknowledged as the wealthiest country in the


country in the world. One would assume, therefore, that there was more than enough
money to go around. So why is it that the proportion of the adult population
living in relative poverty is almost 20 percent, whereas it is only 8 percent in
France, Germany and Italy? If one considers children, the comparison is even more
horrifying. Fully one quarter of American kids live in relative poverty, compared
with one tenth in the major countries of Western Europe.

Some Americans would argue that – thanks to George Bush’s generous tax cuts – they
have a proportionately greater disposable income than their European cousins. Ah,
those infamous tax cuts! Who are they really benefiting? If the present policy
continues, by 2010, 52 percent of the total tax cuts will go to the richest 1
percent of Americans. Put another way, the richest 1.4 million taxpayers will, on
average, get more than one hundred times the tax savings that the rest of the
population gets.

Last year, I visited the Scandinavian countries; Norway, Sweden, Denmark and
Finland. Citizens of these countries pay, on average, about 40 percent of their
gross income as taxes. In return, their government furnishes a cradle-to-grave
welfare system. Education and health care is totally free for everybody. When you
cease to be productive, the state takes care of you till you die. One would
suppose the downside is that Scandinavians have much less spending power. One
would be wrong. A Swedish family, with children, that belongs to the poorest 10
percent of the population has a disposable income that is 60 percent higher than
an American family at the lower rung of the income ladder.

Let us now consider capital punishment. The United States is one of the few
remaining countries that still have a death penalty. Even more telling is the fact
that, of all the countries in the world, only Iran and China execute more people
than the US. As Governor of Texas, George Bush, alone, signed 152 death warrants.
Typically, he made his life-and-death decision after a half-hour briefing with his
legal counsel. Only once did he stop an execution.

Proponents of the death penalty contend that it acts as a real deterrent to


violent crime. But does it? Statistics show that those states in America that have
the death penalty have had more or less the same homicide rates than those that do
not. And then there’s the finality of an execution. There is no scope for second
guessing; for making a wrong right. The Death Penalty Information Center has a
list of 102 people wrongly sentenced to death between 1973 and 2000.

Americans rightly, in most cases, pride themselves on belonging to a system of


government, where individual freedoms of individuals is guaranteed by the
Constitution. Even after 9/11 and the Patriot Act, this right generally remains
valid. But there are aberrations. Consider the case of Jose Padilla, a legal
citizen of the USA. Padilla was arrested in May 2002, on charges that he was a
witness to crimes committed by Al Qaeda terrorists on 9/11. On June 9, Bush issued
a presidential order designating Padilla as an “enemy combatant”. The then
Attorney general, John Ashcroft, announced on national television that Padilla was
an Al Qaeda agent and part of a conspiracy to build a “dirty bomb”. Remember that
Padilla was yet to be found guilty in a court of law. Padilla was transferred to
military custody and denied the right to see his lawyer, on the grounds that
civilian courts no longer had any jurisdiction over him. When civil liberties
organizations challenged this, the Bush administration contended that it was
constitutionally entitled to hold anyone it designated as an enemy combatant,
without judicial review. One is not clear what constitution they had in mind. And
remember, it was never proven – or even contended – that Padilla was directly
responsible for a single American death.

Don’t get me wrong. Compared to what goes on in hundreds of countries around the
world, Padilla was treated with kid gloves. But the United States has become an
unwitting victim to its own standards of excellence; its own hype, as it were,
that it is “the greatest country in the world.”

In July 2002, more than one hundred countries signed on to create the
International Criminal Court (ICC). The function of this court is to try cases of
genocide, crimes against humanity; and war crimes against individuals. The treaty
setting up the ICC was signed by Clinton, in the final days of his presidency. It
makes sense for the US to support the ICC, especially after 9/11. Say a terrorist
accused of plotting or committing a terrorist act against America is apprehended
in a foreign country. The government of that country would probably more amenable
to hand him over to the ICC, rather than the USA.

George Bush has refused to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. By
this act, he is not only opposing the ICC, he is denying any legal obligation that
arises from his predecessor’s signature. Bush’s main objection to the ICC is that
it would cede US sovereignty to an international prosecutor. The administration’s
alternative strategy is to negotiate agreements with individual nations,
guaranteeing that US citizens in their jurisdiction will not be extradited to the
ICC. It has subtly hinted that those countries that do not comply risk the
withdrawal of US aid.

In effect, the US is seeking special treatment for its own citizens. Many
Americans would probably find no fault with that policy. However, there are double
standards involved here. While insisting that the ICC has no jurisdiction over its
citizens, the Bush administration continues to hold hundreds of citizens of other
countries at Guantanamo Bay; who are not even formally charged with any offenses;
and are unable to see lawyers, or have any of the rights the ICC would allow them.
I am not venturing any opinion here, but the facts speak for themselves.

Although this article may foster the impression that my intention is to denigrate
the US, this is not true. I continue to be an unabashed admirer of American
values, its freedoms and, above all, its people. For sure, the American dream
still exists; and is achievable by thousands of individuals. It just seems to have
lost its sheen during the past decade; and that saddens me.